Sunday Review: The Limits of Limelight by Margaret Porter

I’m a lifelong fan of old movies, so when I learned that Margaret Porter was writing a novel about Phyllis Fraser, Ginger Rogers’s cousin, I was eager to read the book and bought it soon after it was published. Phyllis, born Helen Nichols, was an Oklahoma City high school student when her cousin and aunt cooked up a plan to bring her to Hollywood and make her a star. I was intrigued because, although I’ve seen countless Ginger Rogers movies, I’d never heard of her younger cousin.

There’s a good reason for that. Although Phyllis finds fairly steady work as an actress because of her family connections, she doesn’t achieve anything like the status of her more-famous relative. Even so, her story is quite interesting. She becomes part of a group of “baby stars,” hopeful starlets being groomed by the studio yet struggling to break out of the pack. One of her closest friends was Anne Shirley, the former Dawn O’Day who changed her name to match that of the most famous character she portrayed. Anne pursues romance with a handsome actor as well as success on screen. Then there is Peg Entwistle, an ethereal English beauty who longs to return to to the Broadway stage and whose fate has become Hollywood legend (read the novel to find out why). Katharine Hepburn also wanders in and out of the story, first as a rival who feuds with Ginger Rogers and then as someone trying to shed her reputation as “box office poison.”

Phyllis is a refreshingly down-to-earth girl, called “Oklahoma wholesome” by one of her many suitors. Although she enjoys the Hollywood social scene, she has few illusions about the depth of her talent nor does she let any young man, no matter how charming, rush her into a relationship she’s not ready for. Before moving to Hollywood, she had non-acting career goals, and as she gradually learns that the lure of limelight has its limits, she must decide whether to continue pursuing acting or to try building a reputation in a completely different field.

Ginger Rogers and her mother Lela are strong presences in the novel. Lela, who had served in the Marines during World War I is a daunting personality who serves as her daughter’s manager and fights for Ginger’s career with relentless determination. Ginger—the ultimate quadruple threat, a massively talented performer who sings, dances, and acts in both comedy and drama—is ambitious and hard working. She’s less successful in her romantic life, as the novel makes abundantly clear.

The book is an enjoyable fast read, perfect for TCM subscribers and students of Hollywood history. The characters are well drawn and vidid. Phyllis herself is likable, and I found that the path she eventually chooses provides a satisfying ending to the novel.

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Filed under Book Reviews, fiction, Historical fiction

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